Discovery Park International

Science in the Future of India - Ediotrial by Prof. C.N.R. Rao

July 22, 2009

INDIA HAS VOTED FOR SCIENCE. IN MAY, HALF A BILLION PEOPLE CAST THEIR BALLOTS, AND THEY
decisively favored spurring the development of the world’s second most populous nation. The
reelected Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his new coalition government have made a
commitment to reduce poverty and disease, create employment, and stimulate rural and industrial
development. Attaining these goals will require substantial new investments in science and
technology (S&T) plus much greater investments in human capital.
Since achieving freedom in 1947, India has established many institutions devoted to science
and higher education. Most notably, fi ve Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) were established
between 1951 and 1963, and by 2008 there were 13 IITs: national degree-granting institutions
devoted to the training of high-quality engineers and scientists. Despite the gap in infrastructure
between advanced countries and India, there have been critical successes in areas such as space,
atomic energy, and agriculture. In fundamental research too, India has made progress. Because
of the innumerable demands on the economy, however, the higher-education
sector has not received adequate support. Part of the reason for
the decline in India’s university science education system in the past
decades has been the preferential funding for R&D activities in national
research laboratories.
Prime Minister Singh has recently announced an increase in government
investment in S&T from the present 1% of gross domestic product
(GDP) to 2% of GDP over the next year or two, an increase of unprecedented
magnitude. The contribution of industry has also increased signifi
cantly in the past few years, now amounting to approximately 20%
of the nation’s total investment in science R&D. And the government
has begun appropriate administrative reforms as well. For example, two
new government departments dealing with Earth system science and
health research have been created. In addition, the Indian parliament
has approved creating a National Science and Engineering Research
Board, an entity somewhat similar to the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), that will be
responsible for funding scientifi c research. It will provide competitive grants and establish new
facilities in priority areas. Like NSF, the board will also produce annual “science indicators”:
detailed analyses for measuring progress in S&T from year to year.
This is all good news. But the human resources essential for supporting an expanded S&T
agenda are lacking. Young graduates today are readily attracted to professions other than those
related to science and engineering; thus, banking, business, and information technology have
become immensely popular. India must now focus on creating a large body of outstanding young
people interested in taking up professions in science and engineering. To improve the quality of
the university education system, new support is being provided. For example, fi ve new Indian
Institutes of Science Education and Research have been established in the past 3 years. Admitting
undergraduates on the basis of competitive examinations (as do the IITs), these new national
institutes will encourage bright young students to pursue science as a career, at both the undergraduate
and Ph.D. levels. In addition, to meet the demand for top-class engineering graduates
nationally and internationally, the country will increase the total number of IITs to 15.
Sixty percent of the Indian population is below the age of 25, and most reside in villages.
This untapped talent represents a great potential asset. Around 600,000 scholarships are now
available each year for talented school students from these areas, with an emphasis on those
living in poverty. One million science awards are being given to students to promote interest in
science, and 10,000 scholarships are available to support students who wish to pursue education
beyond high school. In addition, the new government has already initiated important structural
reforms in the education sector.
India’s citizens have risen to the occasion with their vote. The tasks and challenges for the new
government are clear but daunting: It must now satisfy the aspirations of a billion people.

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